Cropped Out, an underground music festival in Louisville, Kentucky, lined up a blockbuster band for the top of its lineup this summer: The Fall. I was already eager to attend Cropped Out again after having a fun time there last year, and this sealed the deal. Alas, The Fall later announced it was canceling this show along with a few others, due to frontman Mark E. Smith’s health. As a replacement, Cropped Out added a new headliner, and it was not a surprising one: Louisville’s own Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who also played at this rather DIY festival last year.
And so, on Saturday, Sept. 24, when Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) stepped up to the microphone, he told the crowd: “Hello, class. Sorry, Mr. Smith is sick, but I’m the sub.” And then Oldham and his band, the Bonafide United Musicians, proceeded to play a set consisting entirely of songs from his most recent album, Best Troubadour, a tribute to the late country music icon Merle Haggard. This was a cool treat for me — it’s an outstanding record that has deepened my appreciation for Haggard’s artistry as well as Oldham’s, and it was great to hear these cover versions in their full live glory.
That was the high point of Cropped Out for me, but it was an interesting couple of days overall — including noisy punk and garage bands. I was especially impressed with the tuneful songs of Athens, Georgia, band Deep State. The Australian punk band feedtime, originally formed in the late 1970s, raged along with the younger groups, and Connecticut’s Magik Markers closed out the weekend with a powerful set.
There was also some jazz, most notably a strenuous, intense solo performance by Peter Brötzmann on the deck next to the Ohio River, Cropped Out’s most delightful stage. And on the quieter end of the spectrum, a lovely acoustic set by The Other Years, a Louisville duo. Other favorite moments for me include Omaha singer-guitarist David Nance’s set, and the hilariously rambling stoner monologues that Frank Hurricane told to introduce his songs. And speaking of funny, Cropped Out included comedy by Neil Hamburger and Chicago-based Sarah Squirm. Two very different comics, and yet in similar ways, they pushed boundaries beyond joke-telling into psychology and performance art.
75 Dollar Bill
The Other Years
Le fruit vert
Tara Jane O’Neill
(with Catherine Irwin and Thalia Zedek)
Tyler Damon/Tashi Dorji
Shit & Shine
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
& the Bonafide United Musicians
Cropped Out feels like a homemade music festival. The website for the annual event in Louisville, Kentucky, hasn’t been thoroughly updated for a couple of years. Although the site displays pictures of the 2016 festival lineup, if you click on the drop-down menu for “FESTIVAL,” the most recent info listed is from 2014. Ticket sales are handled through some guy’s PayPal account. ($70 for a weekend pass.) Even the description of the venue is a bit sketchy: American Turners Club? What is that exactly? So, don’t think of Cropped Out as being anything like the bigger, more commercial music festivals. This is not Lollapalooza. It’s DIY.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when I drove to Louisville last week for Cropped Out, but the Sept. 23-24 festival turned out to be a rather delightful experience. The American Turners Club — a German-American organization’s center with a swimming pool, boat club, gymnastics group, etc. — is a compound along the southern shore of the Ohio River. The place had a feel of a VFW hall crossed with a run-down athletic center. Glamorous, it was not, but the location near the river gave it a pastoral charm. However, the men’s room had a horror-movie vibe, with a urinal trough and blinking neon light next to an oddly vacant room containing a chair.) And the Cropped Out organizers decked out the whole venue with garish Halloween inflatable decorations, bedsheets spray-painted with the names of the various stages, and a bunch of comic-book-style drawings. (Like the one next to the bar that showed someone passed out and surrounded by emptied bottles.)
There were four stages, including one in a covered outdoor space — where a large monster with outstretched arms hung on the ceiling above the bands. Upstairs, the Turners Tavern hosted indoor performances, including several punk shows (by bands like Black Panties and Lumpy and the Dumpers) that quickly turned into wild mosh pits. My favorite spot was “Spooky Beach,” the deck near the Ohio River shore where several artists performed throughout the weekend. It was sunny and hot both days, and this little stage was an idyllic setting for beautiful performances by Bill Callahan, Joan Shelley, Matchess and others.
The festival ran on schedule, with only a few minor hitches. (Early on Saturday, a transformer blew out, knocking out the power throughout most of the center, but there was enough electricity to run two stages. And within a couple of hours, the utility company crews had everything fixed.) I’d estimate that a few hundred people attended the festival throughout the weekend. It was always pretty easy to walk around, and to get spots close to the stages. There was no security to speak of, and fans were allowed to walk around on just about all sides of the stages.
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I didn’t get press credentials. I’m not even sure if they were offered, or who was handling publicity for the festival. I just bought a ticket, brought my camera, and took pictures as much as I desired, without anyone stopping me. (That’s the way I like it.)
The closest thing to a corporate sponsor sign was a tombstone on the roof deck, saying that Cropped Out “is survived” by sponsorship from a list local businesses. It was positioned next to an electric organ, which anyone was welcome to play.
The audience looked like the sort of people I see at indie rock and experimental music shows in Chicago, or in other cities where I’ve attended such concerts: Mostly young people, along with a few middle-aged music aficionados (gray-haired folks like myself). A lot of tattoos and long hair. A fair amount of these people seemed to be from Louisville or nearby. As one of the musicians performing at Cropped Out remarked (I’m forgetting exactly who said this), Kentucky is not just bluegrass music.
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Three of the bands I saw early on Friday, Sept. 23, were Louisville locals, and they offered a good sample of some of the underground music being made in the city today. Dry Summers played off-kilter rock songs with a loopy, cheerful vibe. Pleasure Boys thundered and howled its heavy psychedelic music — epic, but with a slightly goofy air about it, reminding me of early Black Mountain. And Cereal Glyphs impressed me with melodic, psychedelic tunes, a little reminiscent of the 1960s Nuggets records. Other strong performances I saw early on Friday included Paper Claw, hailing from Lafayette, Indiana, a band I definitely want to hear more from.
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Performing at “Spooky Beach,” Louisville experimental artist Aaron Rosenblum built a sonic landscape using birdcalls, train noises and electronics.
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Beat Awfuls, a band from Lexington, Kentucky, played indie rock with some of the tunefulness of Guided By Voices.
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Giving Up from Garner, Iowa, played strange, intriguing art-punk with lots of spirit and energy.
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As I expected, Louisville singer-songwriter Joan Shelley’s performance on Friday was a highlight of Cropped Out. Adding to the beauty of her delicate folk songs — which she sang and played guitar, with perfect accompaniment by guitarist Nathan Salsburg — was the setting. Shelley performed on that deck next to the Ohio River, with the sun going down behind her. It was entrancing and exquisite.
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Here’s my video of the final song from Joan Shelley’s performance, “Not Over By Half”:
The festival included one jazz performance, by saxophonist Joe McPhee and pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. (Yes, a pedal-steel guitarist playing jazz, and in a somewhat unorthodox style — it was entrancing.)
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After darkness fell on Friday, Fred and Toody Cole — two-thirds of the punk band Dead Moon — performed their old songs at Spooky Beach, with a couple of bright white lights illuminating their faces amid the gloom.
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The Dead C, a New Zealand noise-rock band that’s been together since 1986, performed in the evening under the “Phreedom Hall” awning — or two-thirds of the group performed, anyway. Drummer Robbie Yeats wasn’t present, but guitarists Bruce Russell and Michael Morley conjured up a storm of loud, feedback-drenched textures.
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Friday’s final performance was inside Turners Tavern, where a crowd gathered around Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie “Prince” Billy as they performed mesmerizing, dream-like chants from their recent album together, Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) returned to Chicago on Feb. 18, playing a concert at the Vic with the same band he played with last summer at the Old Town School of Folk Music — “The Bonny United Ensemble,” comprising Danny Kiely, Van Campbell, Roadie Rodahaffer and Drew Miller.
Oldham was in fine form, hopping around on one leg (as he is wont to do), and mixing in some interesting covers (songs by Bruce Springsteen, R. Kelly, Future Islands, and the Renderers, a New Zealand group). “Crewman/croonman” Oscar Lee Riley Parsons joined him onstage for the Buddy Holly song “Oh Boy,” and the two engaged in some odd almost vaudevillian banter.
SET LIST: New Whaling / The World’s Greatest (R. Kelly cover) / Easy Does It / Wai / Death to Everyone / For Every Field There’s a Mole / Love Comes to Me / A Dream of the Sea (Renderers cover) / Oh Boy (Buddy Holly cover) / Corner Of The Stair / Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen cover) / Bed Is for Sleeping / So Far and Here We Are / Rubin and Cherise (Jerry Garcia Band cover) / Intentional Injury / One With The Birds / Quail and Dumplings
ENCORE: Seasons (Waiting On You) (Future Islands cover) / 2/15 > New Partner > 2/15
A nice bonus at this concert was the opening act, Maiden Radio, a trio from Oldham’s hometown, Louisville. The three women in Maiden Radio are Joan Shelley (whose solo album Over and Even was my favorite of 2015), Cheyenne Marie Mize (who made an EP of duets with Bonnie “Prince” Billy called Among the Gold in 2009) and Julia Purcell. Together, they sing traditional folk songs — which sounded delightful at the Vic. Maiden Radio also sounds lovely on its 2015 album Wolvering.
“I heard that Beyonce put out a record today,” singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) said during his concert Friday night, Dec. 13, at the Majestic Theatre in Madison, Wis. Noting that Beyonce had put her album out on iTunes (actually, the night before) without any advance publicity, Oldham said he’s done the same thing.
Then he wryly claimed credit for giving Beyonce the idea:
“I called her and said, ‘It’s getting to the end of the year. You should put out a record.’ She said, ‘Bonnie, what should I do?’ I said, ‘Just put it out on iTunes.’ She said, ‘That’s a good idea.'”
Before anyone takes this too seriously, we should mention that Oldham has a sideline as a somewhat strange stand-up comedian. While it’s doubtful Beyonce has copied anything from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, it’s true that he’s taken some unusual approaches to releasing music.
Oldham has always been prolific, with so many semiofficial releases under various guises that it takes some homework to keep track of what he’s doing. The homework is worth doing — Oldham is one of the most consistently interesting songwriters of recent years. He hasn’t had a proper album of original songs since 2011, but during that time, he has released EPs, singles and collaborative projects (including an album last year with Trembling Bells and another this year with Dawn McCarthy, the wonderful Everly Brothers tribute, What the Brothers Sang).
And now he has a new album called simply Bonnie “Prince” Billy — which he is selling at the merch tables during a short concert tour, and virtually nowhere else. I snagged a copy for myself and another for a friend on Friday night. I think the guy selling records said that only 23 copies are for sale at each show (though it looked like there more than that). He said the album will come out next year with wider distribution. It’s a spare solo recording, and the only label information listed on it is a P.O. Box in Louisville. During his set, Oldham called it “the yellow record,” adding that the color came out a little greenish.
I made the drive to Madison for this concert because Bonnie “Prince” Billy didn’t include Chicago on his brief 2013 itinerary — unless you count the set he’s playing at 7 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 19, during the Second City’s annual “Letters to Santa” benefit. His other stops on this tour include St. Louis, Iowa City and Minneapolis.
After a lovely opening set of instrumental music by the Chicago group Bitchin Bajas, the stage was set for Bonnie “Prince” Billy: just a table and one microphone. It became clear that this would be a solo performance, something I’ve never seen Oldham do. He sang and played his unamplified acoustic guitar into that one mic, performing a set of more than 20 songs, including many that he recorded in his early years under the Palace Music and Palace Brothers monikers.
He opened with a song I didn’t recognize, which eventually morphed in the Palace Music track “New Partner.” Was it a medley or an extended version of that song? I’m not certain. I jotted down some of the lyrics, which seemed like Oldham’s way of introducing himself to the audience:
“I’m here to sing you songs in this room I have …
“My job is to sing these songs of questionable purpose.”
Oldham often lifted one foot and twisted his posture as he sang, employing some of the same gestures I’ve seen him use when he’s in the full throes of a more rocking soon with a band. And as always, he bared his teeth and rolled his eyes at key moments of his songs. He was more talkative than usual in between songs.
After the first song, he asked, “Does anybody here have Black Panties?” After a woman in the crowd shouted that she did, Oldham said, “Oh, you’re wearing them? I meant the R. Kelly CD. … This next song exists only due to the inspiration of your neighbor to the south, Robert Kelly.” He then sang, “You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes)” — a song that doesn’t sound anything like Kelly’s music.
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UPDATE Dec. 18, 2013: I picked a bad time to drop a casual reference to R. Kelly. The controversy over rape and abuse allegations against the R&B singer has erupted again, driven by this Village Voice story. If you haven’t already, I urge you to read it. And I should add that I don’t understand Will Oldham’s fascination with Kelly.]
At another point, Oldham played “Horses,” a song originally recorded by Sally Timms and Jon Langford of the Mekons. That prompted Oldham to tell the story of how he’d encountered Langford one time in a bar, dragging Langford out to his car to play him Oldham’s recording of the song. Oldham said Langford’s reaction seemed to be: Who the hell is this guy? “One of the high moments of my life,” Oldham said Friday, recalling that moment. An even higher moment, he said, was the time in 2007 when Oldham filled in for Tom Greenhalgh during a few songs when the Mekons played two shows in one night, at the Hideout and the Mutiny. (That was a great night for me in the audience, too.) As he remembered that night, Oldham compared it to watching Casablanca and being asked to fill in for Humphrey Bogart on the screen. Then he changed his mind, adding:
“I’d rather be Peter Lorre, actually.”
Oldham also commented on his love of craft beer, noting: “You can’t download it.” He mentioned that during his introduction to his most famous song, “I See a Darkness.” Tired Hands Brewing Co. is making a beer named after that song. “I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of beer in my life during the last few years,” Oldham said. (Who can forget the time he interviewed a beer-brewing robot in a video for Dogfish Head Brewery?)
While he was in Madison, Oldham and his tour mates visited the Wisconsin State Capitol to get a look at Old Abe, Wisconsin’s Civil War eagle — “who flew into battle Lord of the Rings-style,” as Oldham put it. They heard a tour guide explaining how the original taxidermied Old Abe was destroyed a long time ago in a fire. “The Old Abe that’s in there is an impostor,” Oldham said. That led him into his 2011 song “Quail and Dumplings,” which he described as “my song about being disillusioned with America.” (As political protest songs go, it’s somewhat obscure.)
After an enthralling hour and a half of music and banter, Oldham closed the night with a cover of R. Kelly’s hit “The World’s Greatest,” transforming it into his own style of folk rock. The words seemed both goofy and anthemic coming out of Oldham’s mouth:
“I’m that star up in the sky
“I’m that mountain peak up high
“Hey, I made it
“I’m the world’s greatest.”
[UPDATE Dec. 18, 2013: See above.]
Unknown song? / New Partner (from Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues)
You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes) (from Lie Down In the Light)
Black Captain (from Wolfroy Goes to Town)
The Mountain Low (from Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues)
I Heard of a Source (from Bonnie “Prince” Billy)
Wolf Among Wolves (from Master and Everyone)
Rich Wife Full of Happiness (from Ease Down the Road)
The Risen Lord (from Guarapero/Lost Blues 2)
Omaha (Everly Brothers cover from What the Brothers Sang)
Death to Everyone (from I See Darkness)
Horses (Sally Timms and Jon Langford cover from a Palace Music single)
The Brute Choir (from Viva Last Blues)
Love Comes to Me (from The Letting Go)
Quail and Dumplings (from Wolfroy Goes to Town)
(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit (from Palace Brothers’ There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You)
I See a Darkness (from I See Darkness)
The Weaker Soldier (from Palace Music’s Arise Therefore)
Gulf Shore (from Palace Music’s Lost Blues and Other Songs)
We Are Unhappy (from Wolfroy Goes to Town)
May It Always Be (from Ease Down the Road)
The World’s Greatest (R. Kelly cover from Ask Forgiveness)
Yes, it is hard to believe sometimes how unusual and wonderful the concerts promoted by the city of Chicago in the beautiful Millennium Park are. The summer season of free concerts got started Monday night (May 23) with … Bonnie “Prince” Billy? And Eleventh Dream Day as the opening act?
I love both of these acts, but they’re not exactly superstars or even what most people would think of as mainstream crowd pleasers. But over the past few years, the programmers in the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs have proven that they’ve got good taste and they’re willing to take risks. There’s been a shakeup since last fall, and I’m still trying to make sense of what it means that the city has moved around jobs and transferred some of these responsibilities to the tourism office. So far, so good — interesting and cool music is still being booked at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it stays this way in the months and years to come. (Check out this summer’s concert schedule at Millennium Park here.)
The first act of the night Monday was Chicago’s venerable but still very lively indie-rock band Eleventh Dream Day, although it was questionable for a while whether they would actually play. Drummer and harmony vocalist Janet Beveridge Bean broke an ankle Sunday, and initially the band was planning to cancel the gig as a result. But Jim Elkington (who was in the Zincs and collaborated with Bean in the Horse’s Ha) was recruited to fill in on drums. Bean came out onto the stage in crutches and stood at her own mini drum set, singing throughout the set and offering some backup percussion. Elkington sounded pretty good, considering he’d just had one chance to rehearse the songs. It wasn’t quite the full Eleventh Dream Day experience, but the songs still sounded pretty great … and it made for an unusual and unique show. Bean joked that she was worried about keeping her job with the band. I don’t think there’s any need for her to worry about that, as her vocals came through as strong as ever Monday night.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Will Oldham, performed Monday with the same band he’s had with him last year, the Cairo Gang, which is led by guitarist Emmett Kelly of Chicago, and also includes Chicago singer Angel Olsen. Oldham was a bit more mellow than he’s been the past few times I’ve seen him, but he was just as expressive with his oddball yoga/dance moves, lifting his bare foot at skewed angles while he sang, cradling his guitar in his hands when he wasn’t playing it.
Unless I failed to recognize some of the songs (which is certainly possible, given how many records Oldham has put out), I believe that the bulk of songs he played Monday were brand-new ones, not yet released. He opened with “Troublesome Houses,” off of 2010’s Wonder Show of the World, and played another song from that same terrific album, “Go Folks, Go” just before the encore. But everything in between seemed to be new, with Oldham using lyrics sheets. The songs tended toward the quiet, with lyrics about spiritual seeking as well as the casual references to sex we’ve come to expect. At one point, he warned the audience to clap hands over the ears of anyone children in attendance, then proceeded to sing, “As boys, we fucked each other.” Another song mentioned sweaty thighs locked together. The first of the new songs he performed was almost a solo a cappella performance, with just a few eerie accents from the Steinway piano and the upright bass. The audience in the section of the pavilion near the stage fell almost completely silent as Oldham delivered this melody from the peculiar depths of his throat.
In its loveliest moments, the new material built to gospel-like choruses and impressive three-part harmonies featuring Oldham, Olsen and Kelly. More listens will be needed to decide how the new songs stack up — Oldham’s work usually needs repeat listens before it clicks with me — but it was a daring and beautiful performance. I was wondering what the people in the audience less familiar with Oldham’s work made of it all. It was steady, low-key folk-rock with tinges of jazz and gospel, the sort of music that requires close listening. Did it win over the audience or were people scratching their heads? It’s impossible for anyone to tell what everyone else is thinking in a crowd, but I got the sense that people were at least respectful and intrigued by what they were hearing.
During the encore, Bonnie “Prince” Billy played “There Is No God,” a single he’s releasing June 12 on Drag City, with profits going to Save Our Gulf and Turtle Hospital to support efforts to clean up and maintain waterways — a good cause, in the wake of the recent flooding along the Mississippi River basin. (Watch the video here.) After sounding spiritual in other songs earlier in the evening, Oldham now declared bluntly, “There is no god.” But the declaration wasn’t quite that simple. “There is no god,” he sang, “But that which surround the tongue/That which sees love in the chest/That which puts mouth on cock and vagina/That that is the best.” In his own odd way, Oldham reminds me of poets like Walt Whitman.
His occasionally vulgar lyrics made the spectacle of the concert in the park seem all the more subversive… or surreal, anyway. So the city of Chicago is paying this guy to stand in his bare feet on that fancy stage designed by Frank Gehry and blurt out lyrics about cocks and vaginas and sweaty thighs and how god doesn’t exist? Yep. Pretty cool, isn’t it?
The most recent record from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, The Wonder Show of the World, is yet another very strong collection of songs by the prolific, enigmatic singer-songwriter Will Oldham. And it’s one of 2010’s best records. Oldham’s key collaborator on these recordings is Chicago guitarist Emmet Kelley — also known as the Cairo Gang. (Or is that the name of his band?) The songs on Wonder Show are mostly spare and acoustic, with a folk-rock sound that’s occasionally reminiscent of early ’70s Neil Young.
But when Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang came to Chicago for four concerts this week, the new songs were transformed into sprawling, loose-limbed, full-band arrangements. The music often sounded much different from the studio recordings, but it was equally beguiling. Oldham and his band played two shows Tuesday night (Sept. 28) at Ronny’s in Logan Square, which is — let’s face it — something of a dive bar. It’s quite a bit smaller than the last place I’d seen Oldham — the Vic Theatre, where he played my favorite concert of 2009.
I was at Ronny’s for the late show on Tuesday. After an opening set of atmospheric, droning folk rock by Scott Tuma, Oldham took the stage and removed his flip-flops, revealing his pink-painted toenails. Oldham’s fingernails had pink nail polish, too, and his eyes were underlined with black makeup. The eyeliner was smeared on the left side of his face, looking like a bruise. As usual, Oldham’s face was covered with bristly hair, including a walrus mustache. As he sang, Oldham often contorted his legs and arms as if he were improvising some yoga moves.
While Oldham often plays guitar in concert, he left all of the guitar playing up to Kelly at these shows. The two clearly have a close musical connection. Kelly has a gift for playing loose, informal renditions of songs. Kelly and Oldham seemed to be giving each other cues on where the songs were going. Kelly would lean forward, pausing as he waited for Oldham to come in with a vocal line. The rest of the band (bassist Danny Kiely, drummer Van Campbell, keyboardist Ben Boye) followed their leads.
Chicago singer-songwriter Angel Olsen provided harmony vocals — and she also sang lead on the first song of the show, a rocker called “Sweetheart.” When Oldham, Olsen and Kelly sang together in the quieter moments, the concert had the feeling of a basement choir practice among friends. But this was also a strong rock show. The opening track of the new album, “Troublesome Houses,” was transformed from mellow folk-rock into a louder, more driving song.
Here’s the photograph I took of the set list, which Oldham had in a notebook he carried onto the stage.
The songs were: “Sweetheart” / “With Cornstalks or Among Them” / “Go Folks, Go”” / “Easy Does It”/ “Where Wind Blows” / “I See a Darkness” / “Teach Me to Bear You” / “New Wonder” / “Island Bros” (?) / “Troublesome Houses” / “Kids” / “That”s What Our Love Is” / “Where Is the Puzzle?” ENCORE: “I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me” (traditional folk song) / “Price of Love” medley
I did not recognize the first song of the encore, but based on the notes I took on the lyrics, it seems to have been the folk song “I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me,” which has been performed by June Tabor and the Chieftains. The final verse was particularly striking as Oldham sang it: “I wish my father had never whistled/I wish my mother had never sung/I wish the cradle had never rocked me/I wish I’d died, love, when I was young.”
The final song was a long medley built around throbbing chords on Kelly’s guitar. Beginning as a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Price of Love,” the medley incorporated at least one other song, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “Madeleine-Mary,” before circling back to the chorus: “That’s the price of love, the price of love, The debt you pay with tears and pain.”
As Oldham writhed on the stage Tuesday night at Ronny’s and the band filled out the songs with an almost jazzy sense of exploration, it reminded me sometimes of Van Morrison from the Astral Weeks era.
On Wednesday (Sept. 29), Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang played two more shows, this time at Lincoln Hall. This time, I attended the early show. Chicago musician Josh Abrams played a cool opening set, performing deep, jazzy ruminations on the gimbri, a North African instrument in the lute family.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s early set list on Wendesday turned out to be quite different from the previous night’s late show. Of the 11 songs, five were repeats. (The show was also briefer, with only 11 songs compared with the 16 at the Ronny’s late set.)
The vibe and performance were similar at Lincoln Hall, with just a little bit less of the more rocking songs. It struck me on Wednesday that many of Oldham’s songs feel like plays — short dramas being acted out on the stage, proceeding from one act to another with a real sense of surprise, even if you’ve heard the songs before. The audience followed along with rapt attention. When a song finally reached its closing line, the crowd often paused before clapping — as if we were all holding our breaths, wondering whether that was really the end.
Oldham’s strange expressions and gestures also seemed like a performance by an actor — not that I think there’s anything phony in his quirky moves. In the song “Teach Me to Bear You,” Oldham clenched his arms in front of his chest and bared his teeth as he sang the lines: “But my hands are empty, and my throat cracked and drawn, because I gave away the name you gave to me. Yes, I sang away the name you gave to me.” The specter of Oldham standing there in that posture was a vivid dramatization of the lyrics.
Here is a photograph I took of Emmet Kelly’s copy of the set list. The band added one song not listed, “Troublesome Houses,” and skipped a few others.
The songs were: “Because of Your Eyes” (Merle Haggard cover) / “The Sounds Are Always Begging” / “With Cornstalks or Among Them” / “Island Brah”? (This seems to be the song that looks like “Island Bros” on the previous night’s set list.) / “Merciless and Great” / “Another Day Full of Dread” / “Go Folks, Go” / “Troublesome Houses” / “You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes)” / “Teach Me to Bear You” / “You Are Lost”
Oldham, Olson and Kelly’s voices sounded beautiful at the concert ended with “You Are Lost,” one of the best songs from Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s 2009 record, Beware.
All in all, these were two more remarkable concert performances by one of today’s greatest songwriters.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) is a great enigma, an artist who’s hard to explain, with a walrus mustache that seems to hide half his face. He tends to hide from public exposure, too, though he did some interviews recently to coincide with the release of his new album, Beware. The Jan. 5 feature story in The New Yorker gave a fascinating glimpse of what it’s like hanging out with Oldham in his hometown of Louisville, along with the strange information that his musical idols are Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and R. Kelly. But as with any piece of writing about Oldham, the article still left you feeling like you don’t really know this guy or what makes him tick. (He was also interviewed recently on NPR.)
Maybe his fans, including me, are just building up this sense of mystique around Oldham. But even if he weren’t such a mysterious man, his music would deserve the mythology. I’m still filling in some of the holes in my collection of Oldham music (he has released a lot of records over the years under various names), but it’s clear to me that he is one of our great songwriters today. His previous two albums, The Letting Go and Lie Down in the Light, ranked among my favorites of recent years, and the newest one, Beware, seems destined for similar greatness after a few listens. This one’s a typical mix of Oldham’s folk and country music, along with some peculiar touches of strings and horns. At times, it veers into the ornate orchestral territory of Astral Weeks or Nick Drake’s more symphonic music.
Oldham played Saturday night (March 14) at the Vic Theatre, his first concert in Chicago since a 2006 show at the Portage Theatre, and this one was a doozy. He had a terrific band playing behind him, including a couple of very talented musicians I often see around Chicago, Emmett Kelly on guitar and Josh Abrams on bass. Cheyenne Mize played violin and sang all the female leads and harmony parts, and one of the best percussionists around, Jim White, played drums. It’s a music-critic cliché to call music “organic,” but that is the best word I can think of to describe what this band was doing. The songs seemed to grow on the stage right in front of us, as Kelly played figures on his guitar halfway between melodic leads and rhythmic chords and the rest of the musicians fell into patterns they seemed to be inventing on the spot. They looked to each other for cues on what to do next, as if they were still learning these songs, but it never sounded unrehearsed in a sloppy way.
Oldham moved with peculiar gestures, kicking his legs backwards, flailing his arms. Are these actorly affectations or examples of the natural way he dances and expresses himself? Oldham is an actor as well as a singer, so one wonders how much of his stage manners are a planned performance and how much is spontaneous. Wherever those moves come from, they’re odd. Oldham clearly hasn’t read the official manual on how rock stars are supposed to move onstage, but he’s all the better for it. He comes across as a guy who lacks some of the inhibitions normal people feel, someone who’s not afraid of making a fool of himself.
The concert got off to a strong start, but then it turned into something truly exceptional when Oldham played his sixth song of the night, “Blood Embrace.” Beginning in a hush, the song built to a dramatic crescendo, and Oldham looked as if he was being transported by the magic. Jim White knocked over one of his cymbals as the song crashed to an end.
A few songs later, Bonnie “Prince” Billy played “A Minor Place” from his classic album I Saw a Darkness, and the band made that song sound like the anthem it deserves to be, the backup musicians blending their voices in woozy gospel harmonies. The way Kelly was playing the chords, it almost sounded like the band was about to break out into a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”
Oldham followed up that song with “The Seedling” and “I Called You Back,” both from The Letting Go, and it become clear that this was one show where the performer was pouring everything he had into his songs. He did not let up, either. A little while later, as he let the band play an instrumental break in “Even If Love,” Oldham raised his eyes toward the ceiling. He seemed to be shaking all over. Then he broke the spell by asking sardonically, “What do you have to do to get a disco ball turned on?” (The Vic’s lighting guy responded with a disco-ball-like effect, though the actual ball itself never did light up.)
After this amazing performance, I’m still not sure who Bonnie “Prince” Billy is, but I don’t have any doubts about his talents.
SETLIST (missing a couple of song titles) Sheep (from Ease Down the Road) Hard Life (from Master and Everyone) You Are Lost (from Beware) How About Thank You (from a new 10-inch record) A King at Night (from Ease Down the Road) Blood Embrace (from Superwolf) Lay and Love (from The Letting Go) Where is the Puzzle? (from Lie Down in the Light) I Send My Love to You (from Sings Greatest Palace Music) A Minor Place (from I See a Darkness) The Seedling (from The Letting Go) I Called You Back (from The Letting Go) Without Work, You Have Nothing (from Beware) Beware Your Only Friend (from Beware) Careless Love (from Ease Down the Road) Even If Love (from Master and Everyone) You Want That Picture (from Lie Down in the Light) ? Nomadic Revery (All Around) (from I See a Darkness) I’ll Be Glad (from Lie Down in the Light) ENCORE You Don’t Love Me (from Beware) ? Nobody’s Darling on Earth (cover)
The new record by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Letting Go, is probably one of his best. (And I say this as someone who owns several BPB or Palace Music CDs, without having the complete discography.) This concert by Billy (aka Will Oldham) was quite good, though it didn’t sound much like his recent recordings. The icy recorded-in-Iceland textures and high female harmony vocals were gone, but the music still sounded like no one else’s.
Oldham has developed a peculiar pattern of motion — I hesitate to call it “dancing” — kicking one his legs behind him as he plays guitar, doing a sort of little skip. It’s a good fit for his voice, sometimes a mumble, sometimes a cracked howl. The band sounded loose, very loose, as if the musicians were figuring out the songs as they played them — no, that makes it sound too primitive. Let’s say it was more like an informal basement rehearsal, with a band going over songs that it knows but without being too worried about getting every note right. Azita was playing keyboards and operating a laptop, and she had the unusual role of leading a charades-like game with the set list. Oldham would turn to her before most of the songs and ask her what was next, then she would hold up her fingers to indicate how many words were in the song title and offer other clues.
I came in as the opening act, Dreamweapon, was wrapping up its set. I showed up in time to see a sitar, harmonium, and um… various other unidentified instruments all making droning sounds. A wave of undulating noise. Pretty good if you’re into that kind of thing…
A word about the Portage Theater. The last time I was in this building was the early 1990s, when I lived nearby. I came here once to see a movie, “Thelma and Louise.” Then this place was shut down for years. It reopened recently and has hosted silent movies and a horror movie convention. I believe this was the first rock concert at the Portage. It’s a huge place with a high ceiling, the room shaped a little like an airport hangar. It isn’t as ornate as some of the city’s more glittering old theaters, such as the Chicago Theatre and the Ampitheatre, but it does have some nice ornamental details on the walls and ceiling. The stage is pretty high off the floor, so the sight lines are good. There’s a wide space in front of the stage where people could have stood if they’d wanted (one or two guys did), and I ventured up there a few times for photos. The theater was pretty full for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. I’d venture a guess that most of the people in this crowd haven’t spent much time out in that part of the city, the Six Corners neighborhood on the Northwest Side, where not much happens as far as indie-rock shows. The Portage is a good addition to Chicago’s concert venues.